The Church says: The body is a sin.
Science says: The body is a machine.
Advertising says: The body is a business.
The body says: I am a fiesta.
Being present in our bodies, in time and space, seems as if it would be easy. And yet, much of our early social training is about getting us to ignore information that comes from our senses. The body consistently demonstrates that is more than just the mental chatter of the brain. Bodies instantly decide if a situation is safe or dangerous, whether we are attracted or repulsed by a person. Our bodies are the last remnants of our wild nature. Our sympathetic nervous system responds automatically to stress without having to plan a reaction. In a healthy system, the parasympathetic nervous system calms us when the stressor is gone, allows us to “rest and digest”.
We are not just consciousness living inside a body, we are our bodies. To separate our mind and emotions from the vessel that holds us and the spirit that enlivens us can be a deadly mistake. Living in a body is not an abstract experience. However, after our socialization in Western culture, it takes a lot of convincing to get people to trust this. Rene Descartes, an early European philosopher, proposed that thinking is the milestone of our existence, because the information coming through our senses is so individual. His famous quote, “I think, therefore I am” was a huge contributor to our modern way of being. If I smell something foul and you don’t, Descartes would say that we can’t trust our senses to give us objective information so they cannot make us sure that we exist. Any indigenous person would likely conclude that was insane. To assume that humans or animals or plants for that matter do not exist because they don’t think (or can’t be proven to think) in the same way that other humans do is just not a reasonable conclusion. Our intellect can grasp this easily. We can dismiss Descartes as antiquated. We believe that we are not ignoring our bodies or treating them like objects and yet, it is harder to undo centuries of habit that encourage us to live in our minds and ignore what our bodies say.
For years, I would wake and feed my dog, a necessary custom that she and I developed because she would stand next to me clearing her throat and nudging whatever parts of me that she can reach until I got out of the bed. I let her out the back door to relieve herself and filled her bowl. I would sit down for a few minutes to return phone calls, answer email and tackle my sinister hydra-like list of things to do. The next time I looked up, it would be almost ten. I had to go to work. I hadn’t eaten and I would inevitably have a slight headache and a nauseous feeling in my belly, a sure sign of my low blood sugar or maybe mild dehydration. How did I let this happen again?
Why would I feed and take care of my dog reliably and not my own body? I suspect it is because my body does not urge me to care for it as strongly as my dog did. I convince myself of any number of excuses: that I am just not hungry in the morning, other things are more essential, I will eat later in the day, grabbing something quick on my way to work is easy. My body will remain quiet, enduring my choices for a long time and then suddenly, begin to scream at me.
Our bodies store memories, express emotion, and function or not according to our genetics, mood and life events. We can’t reason with our bodies and if our bodies don’t like the working conditions to which they are subjected, they will go on strike. We definitely don’t become ill because we are bad people. Poor health comes randomly, having it doesn’t negate our inherent value and dignity. It is not a punishment. Yet, sometimes illness demands that we pay attention to what is happening to us, to the decisions we make in our lives. Dr. Christiane Northrup says “You are not responsible for your illness, you are responsible to your illness.” Health concerns can demand that we make changes. The body participates in the conversation with the mind about shaping the reality that we experience.
In September of 2012, I am staying in a campground near the Breitenbush River in Oregon. At dusk, I walk down the gravel road towards the dumpster to get rid of my trash. A movement on the side of the road captures my eye in the dim light and I can make out the shape of a fairly large animal, a baby bear. I do not see a mother bear anywhere nearby. I begin to buzz all over, my body flashes quickly and then begins to burn. I feel a surge of energy that makes me believe that I could run further and faster than any other animal. I’m sure I grow three inches taller. My first thought is “So, this is an adrenaline rush!” My second thought is “I’ve been wasting it on traffic and email!”
Adrenaline (Epinephrine) is a stress hormone that is secreted when we are under pressure to perform superhuman feats in a dangerous situation. The trouble is that we live in a culture that expects us to accomplish superhuman feats daily. Many of us use caffeine to get ourselves out of bed and experience surges of adrenaline while sitting at computers, watching an intense movie or driving in traffic. While the saying “mind over matter” may help us get through difficult conditions when we need to survive, “mind over matter” is not a sustainable way of life.
What would change if we could develop a spiritual and primary relationship with our bodies? How might this change the ways we interact with other people or our environment?
Humans have only recently begun to live in situations where we do not interact regularly with the weather or with our land base. We are able to control the temperature of our indoor settings, travel in closed vehicles and construct buildings that keep us from seeing the time of day.
In the urbanized world, we eat food that is wrapped in plastic and shipped over long distances and sometimes does not look like the animal or plant from which it comes. This is convenient and sometimes less expensive, However, this can also make food feel like a theory, rather than a vital fuel source whose seasons I can mark.
When I pick tomatoes from a pot on my porch or buy them at the local farmer’s market, I know where they come from, my body responds to the taste of them, their appearance, whether they are more delicious than last year’s crop. I know when the peaches come in four weeks late, or when the surprise March frost affects the cherries. I know what month that I can look forward to the blackberries, to the salmon, to the squash.
Eating seasonal foods can provide the nutrients that help the body thrive within the cycles of the year. My body is invested in a completely different way than if I am eating highly processed food raised far away from my home and out of its growing season.
How are we to be healthy within a culture that acts in ways that are not? How can we hear spirituality speak through a body? Attention is often the first stop in cultivating this doorway. Noticing the sensations that we are experiencing is often a very different way of living than the norm. Our minds can easily distract us from feeling our clothes on our skin, our feet on the ground. Returning to those sensations can help us regain body awareness. When we are “triggered”, we often feel disassociated from our bodies, floating in space. A focus on the sensations we are feeling can restore us to present time. The better our practices are for returning to our own present moment, the more helpful we can be to others. Our nervous systems naturally become attuned to each other as social animals and it is easy for someone with a relaxed nervous system to calm others in the room.
Pain can also be a significant barrier to embodiment for people. I have often had acupuncture patients tell me that they do not enjoy being present when their bodies hurt so much. Studies often show that alongside medications, anti-inflammatory diets and physical therapy, some of the most effective pain relievers are breathing, herbs, meditation, acupuncture, heat/ice and gentle stretching.
Changing our breathing habits can affect pain levels and emotions; many cultures also believe that it can open us to connect with a greater source. There is a Navajo concept that the air inside of the lungs is contiguous with the air all around us. We all move through the same infinite, invisible, powerful medium and this connection provides a sense of shared spirit between humans and all breathing beings. This is another facet to Spirit that has been lost through the extreme individuation of Western culture. In urban settings, we often live and work in very close quarters but we maintain our privacy and perhaps our loneliness by ignoring each other, pretending not to see the other bodies around us.
There are many practices that celebrate being a body: yoga, tai ch’i, qi gong, martial arts, dancing, sex, regular cardiovascular exercise and many more that refocus our attention on the pleasure of moving or breathing into our bodies. Body-centered practices offer the idea of having a rapport with our bodies that is not based on forcing them to do what our minds think they should be able to do. We now accept that people can be kinesthetic learners, what about the possibility of being kinesthetic worshippers?
David A. Cooper tells us that “Every bodily movement has its source in the divine. Every thing we do, everything seen or heard, tasted or touched, can be undertaken as a devotional practice.” It is up to us to make sacred our experience of being our bodies. How could you offer your body more love and attention right now? When do you notice that you are disembodied and how can you come back? While we are alive, our hearts are beating, our lungs are breathing, and our blood is flowing.
I dare you to fall in love with your hard working body right now, even before you lose the weight or stop the pain or the habit, even before you change it in some way. I dare you to stand in front of the mirror naked and tell yourself “I love you” until you believe yourself saying it. I dare you to slow down and listen to the voice of your strong body even if it tells you something different than what your ego wants to hear. I dare you to honor all of the bodies that you come in contact with as divine and begin planting the seeds for others to do the same.